ANNA BELFRAGE

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the category “Reflections”

Reminiscing in the Tower

When I was a child, I lived in South America. I attended an English school, learnt to read and write in English, sang English songs and studied English history. In third grade, I had a teacher named Mrs Miller who was charged with teaching us about The Hundred Years’ War as well as with starting us in French. Mrs Miller was also in charge of the dreaded deportment classes, where tomboys like me barely scraped through. To this day, I still don’t know why it was so important for me to learn how to make roses out of crepe paper, or why it was imperative for a young girl to walk about with books on her head, sit down & stand up with those books on her head. On the other hand, I never slouch, so maybe…

Don’t get me wrong: there was plenty of Latin America in my life as well, all the way from TV shows such as Topo Gigio, Esmeralda and Papá Corazón (aaah) to salsa and cumbia and frijoles con arroz, empanadas and arepas.  But mostly it was school and Mrs Miller, to be followed by Mr Carey and Mr Wilmshurst – teachers I will never forget. I really wanted to be English—or at least British. I wanted to go to boarding school in England (too much Mallory Towers), I wanted to be part of a nation that had brought forth such men as Harold Godwinson, Richard I, Edward I and Edward III. I had a serious crush on all four of them, but I wanted to marry Henry Grosmont, the Duke of Lancaster. Unfortunately, he was very dead. In fact, all my heroes were very, very dead.

These days, I realise it was history I was falling in love with—more specifically, British history. Since then, I’ve gone on to discover the deliciously spicy history of present day Spain, of France under the Capets, of my own country Sweden. But my first love is, and will always be, British history up to 1690 or so.

My parents weren’t all that much into history, but when I was twelve, my father took me to London via Casablanca. Just him and me for a week—a most unusual occurrence. And while we were in London, we went to the Tower of London. It was love at first sight, even if I was very disappointed at discovering there no longer was a lion pit.

Tower princes-in-the-towerWhile not a history fan, my father was more than willing to listen to me as I told him about this king or that king. I think it was the first time I truly impressed him, and as the hours passed and we’d not got beyond the Salt Tower I was worried he’d hasten us along, but he didn’t. He asked questions, he asked for more details. He stood to the side as this very young me had an intense discussion with a Beefeater about the fate of the two little princes purportedly murdered by their uncle, Richard III. Afterwards, he told me I needed to become better at separating wishful thinking from the actual facts.

Some years later, 75% of my family moved “home” to Sweden. My mother was worried we were forgetting our Swedish roots (we probably were) and I think she’d been homesick for Sweden for years. My father remained behind in South America, promising that next year he’d come home to us. It took eighteen years before he did, and then he died a few years later, still relatively young.

For obvious reasons, my relationship with my father was never close. Too many years of only seeing him a couple of weeks a year, too many years of feeling abandoned by him. There he was in South America, here we were trying to cope in a country both my sister and I found unfamiliar and unwelcoming. (Swedish teenagers are about as warm and cuddly as teenagers everywhere…) Plus we had to cope with our mother’s obvious disillusion with the country she’d always painted as paradise on earth. Things had changed in Sweden during all those years we lived in South America, and our mother was as much of an outsider as we were.

Tower 450px-WhitetowerlondonStill, whenever I visit the Tower of London, I think of my father. I recall how he and I were chased down a street in Casablanca by people begging for Mr McQueen’s signature (he was an eerie double of Steve McQueen). I remember playing in the Caribbean surf with him, shrieking with joy as he threw me to land several metres away in the water. I remember the beautiful sword he made me, complete with a matching shield sporting Richard I’s arms. I recall those few heart-to-heart conversations we had when I was an adult, and how delighted he was by all his grandsons. All of that I remember as I stand on the old cobbles of the Tower, with ancient walls on both sides. Maybe that’s why I always go there whenever I’m in London, wishing to recapture that perfect day I spent here with my father, so very many years ago.

 

Ode to the Washing Machine

laundress 709d5b99b49a630c3c221a83871d7b70Laundry days, peeps! Woo hoo, time to undress and cavort in the shallows, looking rosy and warm and quite, quite desirable. To judge from various historical depictions of young girls doing the laundry, men did find them desirable – maybe they smelled nice and clean, like.

laundress 779dca0329c893b3d2152023d21a8a39Despite all these depictions of blushing laundresses, doing the laundry was no fun. It was hard, hard work involving a lot of water and stinging lye soap. Obviously, the well-to-do did not do their own laundry. They paid someone else to do it for them, and usually these someone elses were women, engaged in one of the few occupations that women have always been allowed to do to earn their living. I’d hazard doing laundry is almost as ancient a profession as whoring, and at times the clients had a tendency of mixing up these two trades, so that young and pretty laundry maids could find themselves in compromising situations.

Laundresses laundry-1_tc3b6pffer_-_washerwomen_in_a_grottoAnyway: the thing about laundry back then (which is not that long ago, a hundred years, give or take) was that it took time – and a lot of muscle. Usually, households saved up their laundry. In cold countries such as Sweden, washing anything but the absolute necessities was difficult during winter when lakes and rivers froze. Accordingly, no sooner was the blackbird warbling in the shrubs but all the dirty laundry that had been stockpiled over winter was dragged out of wherever it was kept and set to soak. In some cases, it was soaked in urine as this helped bleach yellowing and greying linen.

The soaking stage was called “bucking” and would take at least one full day. In some places, the linen was first soaked in water (or urine), then in a mixture of lye and water, then in water again before being transferred to the next stage. This is when our pretty laundresses had to start working those arms of theirs. Usually, the soaked linen was scrubbed with lye soap, both on the outside and the inside. Wham, wham, wham went the washing bats, ensuring a good work out of the biceps in at least one arm.

Laundress 1200px-Jean-Baptiste_Greuze_(French_-_The_Laundress_(La_Blanchisseuse)_-_Google_Art_ProjectOnce scrubbed, beaten, scrubbed and beaten some more, the garments were boiled. This took some time and involved a lot of heavy stirring. By now, of course, the arms and backs of our laundresses were beginning to ache – a lot. (And speaking from my own experience, it is hard work to boil f.ex. sheets) Once the garments had been boiled for long enough, they were lifted out of the cauldron, the released steam causing the hair of all those little laundresses to curl most enticingly. (In the pictures. In reality, it covered their faces with a sweaty sheen, dampened the clouts with which they covered their hair and had their clothes sticking most uncomfortably to their skin.)

laundresses 1340358820_image001The steaming laundry was then rinsed. Quite often, this was done in the closest river. Up here in the north, this meant the water was horribly cold, and as each garment had to be thoroughly rinsed, the laundresses ended up with numbed and chapped hands. Very chapped. Rarely shows up in all those paintings…

It wasn’t only the cold water that caused discomfort. Burns were common while tending to the cauldron, and then, of course, there was the lye. The correct name for lye is sodium hydroxide – it suffices to hear that name to understand lye is a) complicated stuff from a chemical perspective b) potentially dangerous. Spilled lye caused burns – very painful ones. Should you be unlucky and get it in your eyes, chances were you’d end up blind. Should you be even more unlucky and sort of end up falling over into the lye container, you’d likely die. (And for a graphic description of just what can happen with lye, I recommend Dina’s Book by Herbjörg Wassmo. 19th century Gothic drama set in Norway…)

Laundress e1a99e86901a14a28bc2bebfdf0cc352--th-century-oil-on-canvasAnyway: assuming our laundresses had survived the lye and the water, had avoided falling into the river to drown, at the end of a long, long day they had heaps and heaps of clean linen to hang on lines or spread on shrubs or on the grass to dry. And as I am of the firm opinion we have more in common with our ancestors than we think, I bet those distant laundresses did what I do as they folded the sheets: they sniffed them, smiling at how they smelled of sun and wind and rustling grass. Or maybe they were just too tired to do so. I hope not.

I suppose that what this post brings home is just how lucky we are to live in a day and age where the washing process consists of sorting clothes, stuffing them in the washing machine, adding detergent, selecting a programme and pressing ON. We don’t have to carry bucket after bucket of water to fill the cauldron. We don’t have to stand with our arms in urine as we stir the soaking linen. We don’t have to make lye, we don’t have to whack the washing, scrub it, scrub it some more. No boiling, no endless rinsing in icy water. No crying at the end of the day because our nails are blue and ache so, so much.

laundresses arkhipov-the-laundresses-c1900Once the laundry was done, our weary laundresses had other chores to do. Cows had to be milked, food had to be cooked, bread had to be baked, clothes had to be mended. For those with a fancy streak, all that newly washed linen also had to be ironed, collars and cuffs starched into perfection. A lot of hard work was involved in keeping your clothes clean, so maybe it’s no wonder people wore their garments for as long as they could before adding them to the “to wash” pile. Especially if you were a woman…

These days, we change clothes on a daily basis. Where our grandmothers aired their clothes, gave them a good brush-down and then wore them for some days more, we wrinkle our nose at the thought of well-worn clothes (with the exception of jeans. Maybe) We have the luxury to do so, thanks to that wonderful, wonderful invention, the washing machine. To paraphrase Maurice Chevalier: “Thank heavens for washing machines, without them what would modern peeps do?”  

Is freezing in a garret a prerequisite?

Chatterton 1856 by Henry Wallis 1830-1916There is this rather romanticised (and antiquated) idea that great art is created by young (mostly) male wannabees who laugh cruel fate in the face while they continue with their creative endeavours, no matter chillblains and empty stomachs, ice-cold draughts and ragged clothes. Our literary hero hoards his candle stumps so as to light his nightly progress with his roman à clef,  but no sooner does dawn tinge the night skies pink but he blows out the little flame, preferring to strain his eyesight to wasting any more of his artificial light source.

Such young men write about PAIN. They write about anguish and despair, about setting off to brave the world alone. Their world is harsh, their female protagonists are generally peripheral, and all that introverted focus results in a rather heavy read – which is why said writer is languishing in a garret to begin with. Now, not all garret-bound writers have written unreadable books. In Sweden, we have our own most brilliant if somewhat depressive and misogynist August Strindberg, who rose from humble beginnings to become a writer of quite some well-deserved renown (and doubtful repute, what with all his women). Great art has undoubtedly arisen from strained circumstances, but is it a necessity to suffer to write/compose/paint masterpieces? No, I would say – rather emphatically. What is required to create masterpieces is talent, perseverance and inspiration.

Irises-Vincent_van_GoghCreating masterpieces does not always result in monetary compensation. Take Van Gogh, for example. Did he ever enjoy the monetary fruits of his labour? Nope. His painting of irises may be one of the more highly valued works of arts in the world, but dear old Vincent spent his latter years in mental confusion (hence the ear business, one assumes) and does not seem to have reaped much material reward, despite increasing recognition of his genius towards the latter years of his (short) life.

Also, there’s the interesting little fact that masterpieces are generally defined by a selected few – an intellectual elite, if you will – and may therefore not necessarily reflect the tastes of the broad masses – and if you want to become rich through your creative efforts, then you had better appeal to the masses. To be brief, one can conclude that while writing masterpieces does not exclude material success, neither does it guarantee the writer will be rolling in money. If you write to earn your living, there may therefore be a need of a certain level of… umm… well, what can we call it? “Prostitution”? (Oh dear; hearts go all a-flutter, don’t they?)

aston_martin_db9-pic-12758Writers who are looking for high level income should choose genre carefully. Crime is a safe bet. Silent male hunk (think Reacher) driven by an inner moral compass but uninterested in cluttering up his life with emotional baggage as he goes about saving the world always seems to sell – mostly to men, who probably nourish a dream of living the simple life and being heroes at least once in their lives. Another safe bet is romance – but here the sub-genres are a veritable tangle to work your way through, and some are more successful than others, so do the research before deciding on whether your male protagonists will prance about in silk hose and breeches, a painted mouche on their cheek and a powdered wig atop their head, or slouch about looking delightful in an Aston Martin DB9 and cashmere (Aaaaaaahhhh, yes…)

The alternative to prostitution – a.k.a. writing what you think the market may want –  is to write what you feel passionate about and to hell with remuneration. In my experience, this leads to much better writing. Much. Okay, so there may only be a minority of people around who want to read about the Sherpa who got on the wrong bus and ended up in Zanzibar (and boy, was that a happy Sherpa: not a freezing mountain in sight to climb, just beautiful pristine beaches and a nice warm climate) but that minority will – hopefully – become your fans. Which is why, of course, I write about love and history, and time travelling and love and the 17th century and love and medieval rebellions and love and religious controversy and … Did I mention love?

Gabriel_Metsu_-_Man_Writing_a_LetterThese days, writing is no longer done on paper with ink that leaves ugly blots, those manuscripts pages then rushed off to be typeset. No, dear people, these days writing is done on computers.Yes, yes; some of us draft – or even write – using pen and paper, but ultimately authors these days will keyboard their characters, their plot and setting, into a precious .docx file that exists in multiple back-ups. (WHAT? You have no back-ups????? Well, you clearly like living on the edge, don’t you?) And once the file is on the computer, it is quite easy to publish it without having to do the agent/publishing house thing – you can do it all on your own. (Luckily, as otherwise those people who really, really want to read about the Sherpa and Zanzibar would never get the opportunity as the target reader group is ridiculously small)

The classic business model regarding books for the latest decades has included the author, the agent and the publisher. Any profit made would be shared by the three interested parties, and so long as the publishing companies controlled what was being published, things worked out pretty well. After all, until recently, if you wanted to read a book you needed to buy the physical printed product, and as long as the publishing houses ensured the market wasn’t flooded by too many books in the same genre, readers would browse what was available and buy, thereby guaranteeing higher sales per title, ergo nice, steady profits. Enter the age of digital publishing. Enter the age of Amazon. (I feel a sudden urge to sing here: “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars…” Chorus: “This is the dawning of the age of Aaaamazon, the age of Aaaaamazon, Aaaamazon“)

behemotYes, Amazon is a behemoth that is causing rampant death among many smaller and larger booksellers. Yes, Amazon has reinvented the book industry. Yes, Amazon drives e-book sales. Yes, Amazon has created space (he-he) for unpublished authors to go for it. Yes, Amazon is doing all this for profit. No, Amazon won’t go away – and neither will Smashwords or Kobo or all other similar on-line retailers. Or e-books. Why? Because for the reader, Amazon offers a cheap and accessible service, with the added benefit of e-books being far more environmentally friendly than the printed book.

As a consequence, the traditional business model within the book publishing world is under pressure. This leads to publishing houses having to become more restrictive regarding what they publish. Guaranteed sales need to be relatively high for the company to recoup on its investments. Sales of 10 000 copies will generate approximately 20 – 30 thousand pounds in gross profit, but this is before any promotional costs, any salaries to the people involved in the production as such (you know; editors, jacket designer, proof-readers – plus the overheads, such as the cleaners and the managers and the accountants and the sales reps and…) The book sells 5 000, and the gross taking is roughly 10 – 12 thousand pounds, which doesn’t leave much of a profit – if any –  once all expenses incurred have been deducted. It’s a tough world, the book business – almost as tough as life was back then, in that freezing garret room, where the only source of light and heat was a fluttering candle.

When the basic tenets of an industry change, this creates opportunities for new players. Enter the quality-minded, professional small publishing companies that cater to all those authors who no longer have a chance in hell of getting a contract with one of the traditional publishing companies – not because their book is bad, but because they’re not celebrities, or well-known authors that have an established fan base, or have a book that hits a trending sweet-spot. Or are immensely talented.

So, the enthusiastic as yet unknown author wants to publish, the small publishing house offers a package for self-publication and you have a marriage made in heaven. (A word of warning: double check the publishing house before going with them. You want someone who is serious about what they do)  End result of this matrimony = a book, a lovely, lovely book that has the writer smiling like an idiot while he/she strokes the cover (been there, done that). But is it a quality product? Aha! Key question, ladies and gentlemen, best replied by “Judge not a book by its cover“, because no matter how pretty the cover, it’s the content that matters, right?

for-your-eyes-only-stampIf you write for your own pleasure, you don’t need to worry about edits and formatting, about odd POV shifts, about excessive usage of adverbs. You’re doing if For Your Eyes Only, and so it can be just as unfinished as you let it be. But. Major, major but. You put it out there as a book you expect people to buy, well then you owe all those people a certain basic quality. Formatting is nice, for example. Correct spelling helps ( “You now it’s true!” she said. Err… ). Consistent use of verb tense, of names, of dates – all of this is a minimum. I recently read a book where the protagonist is eighteen on one page, twenty-six three chapters later when two years have passed, and in actual fact he must be sixteen as we are told he is ten years younger than another twenty-six-year-old. Very confusing, let me tell you –  and far from a quality product.

This, I believe, is the rub in the entire self-publishing debate. Too many books are published at a deplorable standard, and IMO it is the company facilitating the publication services that somehow must take a stance here. All books do not appeal to all readers – and that’s okay. Personally, I’d hate reading a book about a Sherpa that ended up in Zanzibar (I think; maybe if Stephen Fry wrote it I might reconsider). But as long as the book lives up to a basic standard, I won’t feel shortchanged if I buy it and then simply don’t like it.  So, dear wannabe writers, do yourself – and your future readers – a favour. Hire an editor. Please. Pretty, pretty please? And as to all those publishing houses that cater to the self-publishing industry (including dear, huge Amazon), how about making editing a prerequisite, huh?

paris-charity-in-a-garret-grangerIf we float back in time to that chilly garret (in Paris, of course it’s in Paris, and Rodolfo is holding Mimi’s cold hand while singing his heart out to her, and…oops, sorry, slipped away there) with our industrious author, we will find the floor around his chair littered with pages, pages where words have been scratched out – whole sentences even. Mr long-suffering author is in the editing phase, and because he is dirt poor and convinced he is the best writer since Molière, he scoffs when his timid muse suggests he let someone else take a look at his finished opus. Grammar, he says in a patronising tone, is for lesser writers than he. He is an artiste, a creator of masterpieces, not for him the ridiculous rules of syntax and spelling. No wonder he’s still stuck in that garret of his, cursing the world for not seeing the beauty of his text.

In conclusion, dear people, writers don’t need garrets. But they do need editors – and readers. And books, they need publishing houses that take the craft of writing seriously – so seriously, in fact, that they won’t set their name to a book (self-published or otherwise) unless it meets a certain standard. Like an ISO 9001 approval, but for books. Can’t be that difficult to put in place, can it? Hello? Mr Bezoz? Did you hear that?

Oh, and if someone feels like developing my Sherpa/ Zanzibar story, I do have a rough outline lying about (you call, Mr Fry, and I’ll come running).

 

 

 

Saving summer in a bottle

midsommar 7409078390_6d0280973b_bToday, Sweden celebrates Midsummer’s Eve. (Being a pragmatic people, we decided quite some years ago to always celebrate Midsummer on a Friday, no matter when the solstice actually happens) All over Sweden, people will be gearing up for one of our favourite holidays, albeit that very often the hoped for sunny weather doesn’t make an appearance. After all, if you’re going to spend the whole day, the whole evening and the whole night (if you’re young, horny and lucky) outside, then it’s much better if it’s warm and dry rather than damp and cold. Fortunately, us Swedes are a hardy lot: we put on an extra layer and dance round the maypole no matter the weather.

Some years ago, it was colder on Midsummer’s Eve than it had been on New Year’s Eve. That was a bummer. As was the year when it snowed on Midsummer. Thing is, even if the sun is shining, many of the outside bits look better on photo and movies than they are in reality. Take that scene in from Here to Eternity where Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster frolic in the surf, well all I can say is Ha! You do that and you end up with sand everywhere. Everywhere.

However, to sit outside on this the year’s longest day is magical. Come evening, we’ll wrap ourselves in blankets – more for the mosquitoes than the cold – and settle down to watch as the day wanes. The sun touches the woods on the opposite shore well past nine, and around ten or so the pink of sunset begins to streak the sky. It never gets fully dark. Instead, the day sinks into a purple dusk, rests there for awhile before rising to the brilliance of a summer dawn.

20170623_094321Many years ago, when I graduated from Junior High, we sang a song called “If I could save time in a bottle”. In retrospect, the lyrics were wasted on a group of fourteen-year-olds, too young, too convinced of their own immortality to even consider saving time. Life was there for the taking, and we didn’t want to save time, we wanted time to hurry up and speed by so that we could become proper adults and get on with life. We’d not quite grasped that life is what happens right here, right now. Only this singular moment is a certainty – yesterday is no more, and tomorrow may never come. Although, for most of us, tomorrow will come, As will the next tomorrow and the next tomorrow, and the next, until one day…Well: you get the point, right?

As I sit on my porch with the glory of summer spread out before me, I do my very best to engrave the moment in my mind, save it as a memory which I can pull out at need on a freezing cold November day – or an equally cold February day – to reassure myself that after winter comes summer. After dark, comes light. After cold, comes warmth.

Resized_20170617_133041001Sometimes, more tangible mementos are required. Which is why in my family we take the making of elderflower cordial very, very seriously. Nothing evokes summer as much as a glass or two of this fragrant beverage. A pale gold, the finished product resembles bottled sunlight, the warmth of summer trapped in a bottle.

First, we have to find the perfect corymbs. Elders have a tendency to attract lice and we definitely don’t want black specks floating around in the cordial, ergo we must be selective – and pick them early. This time round, we picked 240 corymbs.

Resized_20170617_135929For every 80 corymbs, we need two lemons, sliced in two. Plus we need water and sugar. We boil the water, add the sugar and stir until it dissolves, and pour this over the corymbs. After that, we leave it to sit in the dark for several days, stirring every 48 hours.

Resized_20170617_142238We strain it, add a preservative and bottle it. And just like that we’ve captured a little piece of summer, something to tide us over during the months of darkness.

Today, however, winter is far, far off. Today, we’ll sit in the purple dusk and watch the swifts and swallows dart back and forth. From somewhere far away comes the sound of song, of people laughing as they dance around the maypole while singing about little frogs (What can I say? Us Swedes are a strange lot) On the table stands the customary bouquet of seven different flowers, flowers tradition tells us we should take to bed and tuck under our pillow so as to dream of the man in our life. I don’t need to dream. My man is sitting right beside me, his thigh pressed against mine, my hand enclosed in his. Not a bad way to spend Midsummer’s Eve, IMO. Not bad at all.

In the name of love – not always a happy tale

Pomegranate_Tree-300x297

A pomegranate tree – a symbol of love

God, it is said, created Adam before Eve, and to keep Adam adequately occupied he was given the task of naming all the fantastic forms of life God paraded before him.
“Centipede,” Adam said, having regarded this multifooted creature for a while.
“Zebra,” he nodded (with an extended eeee sound) but was struck mute by the stately grandeur of the hairy pachyderm that looked down its very long, elongated nose at him.
“Mammoth,” Adam decided after a while.

Day after day, he sat there naming these creatures, and it struck him somewhere round day 178 that they all came in pairs. Two elephants, two lions, two penguins, two stoats but only one Adam. Which was why God brought forth Eve, and Adam took but one look and fell helplessly in love. Alternatively one could argue that if Adam wanted to procreate, there wasn’t much to choose from – same goes for Eve.
“You could try, you know,” Eve said one evening, looking Adam up and down.
“Eh?” Adam wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm.
“A girl likes being courted,” Eve pouted. “You know, flowers, jewelry  the odd little daytrip …” Eve sighed and threw a look at the rolling green meadows of Eden, picture perfect and oh, so boring.
“Why bother?” Adam yawned. “It’s only you and me, right?”
“I could find someone else,” Eve threatened.
“Yeah, sure,” Adam laughed, “like how about setting up house with the ant-eater next door? Or hey, chat up Mr Tiger and see how far that gets you.” Adam was very amused. Eve was not, and when dusk settled like a purple velvet curtain Eve refused to snuggle up close to Adam, staring at Venus instead while humming “Love hurts“.
“Pssst! Gorgeoussssssss,” someone hissed.
Eve almost fell off her little log. “Who’s that?” she hissed back, straightening her spine somewhat.
“It’sssss me,” this hissing presence said. “You’re one ssssexy lady, ssssssweetheart.”
“You think?” Eve preened and sidled closer to the voice that seemed to be coming from a nearby tree.
Well, the rest is history as they say, with a very aggravated Adam being thrown out of paradise on account of his woman. (Or wife? Were Adam and Eve married?) I imagine there were many, many nights when Adam berated his wife for being an idiot, in response to which Eve cried that it was his fault – for not showing her he loved her.
“Love you?” Adam snorted. “What sort of romantic drivel is that?”.

If we stay with the Old Testament for a while longer, there’s the sad lovestory of Samson and Delilah. Samson was a somewhat complex character, bound by his parent’s oath as a nazarite, one of God’s chosen. God has plans for Samson, having given the young man impressive strength with which to smite the Philistines – as long as he didn’t cut his hair (Haircuts and alcoholic beverages are a major no-no for the nazarites amongst us). Anyway, Samson became a major burr on the Philistines’ nether parts, and after several failed attempts at catching him, the Philistines resorted to a ruse. Samson loved a young woman called Delilah (as deceitful then as she was when Tom Jones sang about her) and one night he finally told her it was all in his hair, whereupon she proceeded to shave his head while he slept. This was probably unrequited love from Samson’s side – Delilah seemed quite unperturbed when her man was led away and blinded. One could say that in this case, what Samson did in the name of love was sheer stupidity.

431px-Judith_mit_dem_Haupt_des_Holofernes

Kick-ass Judith (L Cranach)

Yet another woman in the Old testament, Judith, took a leaf out of Delilah’s book, seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes before chopping his head off while he slept. Okay, so she had valid reasons to do so – the Assyrians threatened to destroy her home – but yet again love was used as cunning deceit.  (One strong woman, dear old Judith; decapitating someone requires a lot of muscle) One could of course argue that this had nothing to do with love. this was lust, plain and simple, the fire raging in Holofernes’ loins when in Judith’s presence befuddling his mind to the point that he lost his head.

Helene_Paris_DavidWe fast forward a number of centuries and there we are, with Paris and Helen. The lady with the face that launched a thousand ships fell heads over heels for the Trojan prince and decided to run off with her lover thereby shaming her husband and handing the Greeks the pretext they needed to once and for all destroy Troy. Which they did with surprising efficiency, eradicating the city so completely its actual location was lost. (Until a polyglot German business man by the name of Heinrich Schliemann rediscovered it in the nineteenth century. Not a man much swayed by love, Heinrich took a pragmatic approach regarding such matters and advertised for a wife when he needed one. Different story …) Yet another lovestory that ended without a Happily Ever After. Paris died, Helen was dragged back home by hubby Menelaos, and Paris’ entire family was exterminated.

Around the times of Christ we have gorgeous Cleopatra, the lady who gave milk-baths a name, so to say. In keeping with tradition, Cleopatra was married to her younger brothers (in plural, as one died and the next one stepped into his place) But she loved elsewhere, starting with Julius Caesar. When they met, Cleopatra was young and nubile, Caesar was battle-hardened and… yup, old. But clearly vigorous enough to inspire tender feelings in his Egyptian mistress – or was that just Cleopatra pretending to keep herself and her country safe? Later on, after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra was to transfer her affections to Mark Anthony, and for a while it seemed these passionate lovers would succeed in building their own little empire. Enter capable, cool-headed Octavianus and “poof”, that little dream bubble was skewered. Mark Anthony committed suicide after suffering defeat at Octavianus’ hands, and some while later Cleopatra followed suit, as per tradition by being bitten by an asp.

Through the ages, loves and infatuations have often changed the course of history – or at least had severe impact on it. Edward II had a thing about his male favourites that undermined his standing and led to him being ousted (it may all have been platonic, we don’t know), Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn lead to a new English Church, Edward VII fell so in love with Wallis Simpson he abdicated (it’s a tad unclear if this is what Wallis wanted. Whatever the case, how can you say no to a man who has resigned a crown for your sake?). And then we have all those cases where women (okay, okay; a smattering of men as well) have risked everything – even their lives – for love.

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Armfeldt

One such person is Madeleine Rudenschiöld, a Swedish lady who in the late eighteenth century fell head over heels in over with the handsome royal favourite, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt. An eyeful  was Gustaf – to our modern eyes somewhat lacking in toned muscle, but all the same pleasing to look at with an absolutely magnificent head of hair.  This decorated officer and cosmopolitan Don Juan was one of the king’s confidantes and was responsible for the lavish and complicated entertainments offered at court. Pretty Madeleine was young and innocent, and taken aback by being the object of Armfeldt’s intense courtship.

A determined man, Armfeldt won Madeleine’s heart in 1785 – coincidentally the same year he married another woman – and was soon a regular visitor to Madeleine’s bed. Being a man of voracious appetites when it came to women, Armfeldt had a number of other mistresses as well, but from his correspondence and the length of their relationship, Madeleine does seem to have held a special place in his heart – as did his capable if somewhat frumpty wife (whom he rather sweetly refers to as “my pumpkin”). So far, this is nothing but a little love affair, but when Gustav III was murdered in 1792, Armfeldt’s comfortable existence at court came to an end.

Armfeldt was ousted from power, did not like it and conspired to achieve the downfall of his enemies and his reinstatement at court. Dear Madeleine helped, delivering his messages to the other men involved in the conspiracy. One day she was intercepted, the conspiracy was revealed and while Armfeldt was safe down in Italy, poor Madeleine was not, having to suffer the ultimate shame of pillory and prison for having helped her lover. She was pardoned some years later and sort of drops out of history. She seems to have spent her latter years as an unpaid housekeeper for her brother. Oh, the wages of true love!

People do stupid things for love. Some drink poison to die beside their lover, some sell everything they own to help their loved one pursue a dream. It’s easy to laugh at these gullible fools – even if most of us will twist our lips in wry recognition as we hear a husky voice sing the poignant words in one of my favourite songs, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

They asked me how I knew, my true love was true,
I of course replied, something here inside cannot be denied.
They said someday you’ll find all who love are blind.
When your heart’s on fire, you must realise, smoke gets in your eyes.”

They say it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I agree – heck, I think Cleopatra and Madeleine, Anne Boleyn and even Eve all agree as well. It is what we do in the name of love that defines us as humans, weak and fragile at times, but so resilient and brave at others. And no matter where we are in the world, to what culture we belong or what faith we call our own, there’s no denying that the greatest thrill of all is to hear someone say “I love you” . No, wait; the greatest thrill of all is to SAY “I love you” and see that special someone light up like a beacon.

Here’s to love, people. Here’s to the bubbly fizzy feeling that has you dancing on the spot, here’s to the mellow contentment of belonging together. To love – or as dear old Julius would have cooed to pretty Cleopatra, Amor Vincit Omnia. Except, of course, it doesn’t, as evidenced by Holofernes and Samson, Helena and Cleopatra. And yet…Oh,yes: and yet.

Eternity is a long, long time – but we only have now

Spending time with second son is always something of an intellectual stretch, often ending with hubby and I staring at each other and wondering where on earth second son came from. Okay, okay: we know where he came from. We even have a pretty good idea just when he was conceived, but there was no sudden burst of stars at that critical moment, nor did his birth have us breaking out in song. It’s sort of difficult to sing and push at the same time, and hubby is tone-deaf and has too much self-preservation to risk humming as I was labouring. Whatever the case, second son is something of an enigma to us – he thinks so out of the box the rest of his family have a hard time keeping up.

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Lucas Cranach, The Tree of Knowledge

Second son is also one of those people who are constantly expanding their knowledge. For a light summer read, second son chooses “The Wealth of Nations” followed by an treatise on Chinese history. He is just as happy discussing details in Roman history as he is explaining the inexplicable world of genetic algorhythms to his mother, and as he not only reads a lot, but also seems to listen to hours and hours of obscure podcasts, he can bring up the most amazing topics over tea and cake. Like immortality.

In this case, it all started with a discussion about Elon Musk and his somewhat dark view of what the advent of advanced artificial intelligence (AI) may mean for us humans. As per Musk, AI & digitalisation will lead to a huge reduction in “simple” jobs such as driving cars, lorries, buses, trains, working on production lines & whatnot, and as a consequence a lot of people will lose their income. This is a view Musk shares with many, which is why there is an increasing discussion about the need of implementing some sort of citizen’s wage. I can just imagine how difficult it will be to get such a system in place. Plus, I’m not so sure human beings benefit from passivity.

Anyway, in the midst of this debate, we ended up discussing somewhat more theoretical concepts such as artificial intelligence taking over, the challenges of living in a world where more and more people would likely make it to a hundred. This is when second son stole the last piece of cake and casually said that soon enough, eternal life would be a possibility.
“Round the corner,” he said. “It’s just a matter of locking down the way our cells replace themselves.” Fortunately, it’s not exactly round the corner. There’s a huge gap between understanding that if we can only find a way to stimulate old and tired cells to continue replacing themselves we can live for ever to actually doing it. Phew.

I’m not sure eternal life is something to aspire to. Isn’t life as precious as it is precisely because it is finite? And can you imagine the tensions it would cause in society when all these ancient peeps insisted on remaining alive, thereby shortchanging future generations? Plus any “eternity treatment” would probably be very expensive, which means it would be a person’s wealth rather than their moral attributes that would decide whether they would live forever, yes or no. In the world we presently inhabit there are quite a few very rich people with exceedingly low morals who, I believe, would be more than thrilled at extending their lifespan to the detriment of humanity in general. Not exactly a scenario I find particularly palatable.

Second son shrugged. “The technology will be there at some point. Just as we already have the technology to tamper with the DNA of unborn babies.” Yeah, we do. And it is a great thing if such technologies can be used to eradicate genetic diseases. It is not quite as good a thing if those technologies are used to “enhance” those future babies so that they all develop into tall, athletic, handsome blue-eyed and blond people. Or brown-eyed and dark haired. Second son nodded in agreement before stating that nature had a tendency to balance things out.

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Photo Rsika (Creative Commons)

“Think of the banana,” he said, and I must admit my response to that was “Eh?”
“The banana,” he repeated patiently. “It used to be all bananas more or less were of a type known as the Gros Michel, but back in the 1950s, a fungus disease wiped out all Gros Michel bananas. A major catastrophe for the banana world, the result of all those bananas sharing the same DNA. If we start tampering with human embryos so as to make them fit one mould, chances are their DNA will also be very similar, which in turn would make the population very susceptible to certain types of epidemics.”
“Ah.”
“What we need to do is understand – or at least attempt to comprehend – just how radical the possibilities offered by new technologies will be – and start thinking about legislation to ensure all this new stuff isn’t misused,” second son continued.
“Would it be misuse to pay for eternal life?” I asked, visualising a number of men (yes, mostly rich white men with a narcissistic streak) sitting around sipping at some grossly expensive elixir.
“Probably not.” Second son stretched. “But the concept of eternal life and the reality of it are two very different things. Imagine living on and on while your friends die, your family dies, the world changes and no one can anymore understand your references to the music of your youth, or the events that shaped you.” He tapped his head. “That way lies insanity.”

I am prone to agree. While we may one day be able to tamper with our bodies so as to offer an endless lifespan, I’m not so sure our mental capacities would be as adaptable. Eternity is a long, long time to spend alive. Boredom would likely set in. Severe boredom, the type that makes you depressed enough to throw yourself in front of a train or off a house. If you live long enough, likely you’ll spend most of your time considering just how to stop living.

eternity Science_fiction_quarterly_195611Very many years ago, I was a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s short stories. One of them has stayed with me through life, and is a rather short thing called The Last Answer. It tells the story of atheist Templeton who dies of a heart attack and ends up as a cognitive presence in the hereafter, his only purpose being to think thoughts that will amuse The Voice, an ancient, immensely powerful intellect that can easily think up amusing things all on his own. So goaded is Templeton by the futility of this continued existence at  The Voice’s behest that he decides to think up a way to destroy it. Which is precisely what The Voice wants him to do… (Great short story, BTW, as is the companion piece, The Last Question)

I guess Asimov and I shared a common perception as to how horrible eternal life could be…

No, no eternal life for me – at least not here on earth. I wouldn’t mind several more years, though, just as I wouldn’t mind miraculously shedding like 15 kilos, growing a couple of inches and wake up to long, thick hair the colour of a rippling rye-field. Probably won’t happen, and I’m okay with that too.

IMG_0199But when it is time for me to go, I am sure there is something on the other side. (And yes, I realise I am being inconsistent here: but this would be another life, not an ever-extended life)  I must admit to hoping for gambolling lambs and green pastures, ever-replenished teapots and warm apple pie and an endless supply of Belgian chocolate. And hubby to hold my hand, but when I say that hubby just smiles and shakes his head, reminding me that he doesn’t believe in stuff like that. He is planning on returning as a bluebell.
“Or a lupin, seeing as you love them so much,” he says with a smile that grows softer when he sees the tears in my eyes. Eternity without him seems sort of pointless, actually. That makes him lean forward to kiss my brow.

Ultimately, all we have is now. As yet, there is no elixir that adds years to our lives, no magical rejuvenation that has us springing out of bed at eighty while feeling twenty-five. Tomorrow there may be, and humanity will collectively have to address the challenges poised by such an invention. But for now, grab hold of your life and savour it. Life is short, and no matter how many gambolling lambs may be waiting in the afterlife, only this life is a certainty. Live it to the full, people. Marvel at the world that surrounds us, walk barefoot through dewy grass, wade along the seashore under a starlit sky. And when you see a bluebell – or a lupin – stop for a moment and consider just how lucky you are. You are alive. Not bad, hey?

A bouquet of ladies

In celebration of the International Women’s Day, I’ve decided to throw the doors of my blog—for the day known as my salon—wide open to some of my favourite historical ladies:

christina_queen_of_sweden_1644-1654_-_google_art_projectQueen Kristina of Sweden is a 17th century lady who was born so hirsute the midwives first declared her a boy only to then discover the babe was a girl. It is said they quaked at the thought of telling Kristina’s father the truth, but I am glad to report Gustav II Adolf was a progressive man in many respects, including being delighted at having a healthy daughter. Kristina’s mother was far from delighted: a daughter was a major, major disappointment in her book. Kristina became queen at the tender age of six, ruled in her own right from her 21st birthday or so, and abdicated at 28, sick and tired of all this queen stuff (Well, the fact that she was considering converting to Catholicism probably affected her decision. Being a Catholic in fiercely Protestant Sweden came with its own risks).

Isabella w Hugh D the eder & Earl of ArundelMy second visitor is Queen Isabella, born some 330 years before Kristina. The only daughter of Philippe IV of France (a.k.a. le Bel), Isabella is reputed to have been incredibly beautiful – and very well-educated. A smart mover and shaker, this is the lady who colluded with Roger Mortimer and deposed Edward II, Isabella’s not-so-loved husband. (At the time: prior to her falling out with hubby, she’d been more or less happily married to him for 16 years or so)

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Berenguela’s mum & dad

Our third visitor is Berenguela of Castile, daughter of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor of England, granddaughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Seeing as all her brothers died young, Berenguela ended up inheriting her father’s kingdom, abdicated in favour of her young son so as to appease the machismo of her Castilian nobles and proceeded to call the shots for the rest of her life—albeit working with her son rather than against him. It is to Fernando’s great credit that he always respected and valued his mother’s input.

Now that the introductions are over, let’s all settle in and get cosy. And no, you need not worry: I have not dug them up and dragged them here in all their decomposed glory, instead I am inviting them as they appear in my head, very much alive and kicking. That is one of the drawbacks of spending too much time with my nose stuck in history: these long-gone women are in many ways as real to me as some of the people I meet on a daily basis. Not so that I hold long conversations with them while waiting for my print-outs (actually, yes I do—but only in my head), but I invest a lot of time and effort in trying to recreate these ladies based on what historical records we may have.

“God, how you go on!” Queen Kristina of Sweden looks me up and down before throwing herself backwards into an armchair.
“Amen to that.” Isabella of France glides over the floor. “And really, Kristina, must you sit like that? So unladylike!”
“You’re not my mother,” Queen Kristina retorts, but straightens up all the same, hands patting at her curly hair before adjusting her lace collar. Isabella is an intimidating lady—even to a fellow queen—and she is also, as always, perfectly attired, a combination of kirtle and robes in various shades of pink complemented by a sheer veil and a mantel in embroidered purple.
“Byzantine,” Isabella informs me, smoothing at the rich cloth.
Christina_of_Sweden_(1626)_1667_attributed_to_W._Heimbach“Expensive,” Kristina remarks drily, shaking out her dark skirts.
“What can I say? I’m French, non?” (Mais oui. Isabella is as French as they come)
“You’re vain, child,” Berenguela of Castile cuts in. No pinks and purples for this rather daunting matriarch. Berenguela’s face is framed by veil and wimple, her clothes dark and unadorned.
“I’m not a child,” Isabella sniffs.
“You are to me. You’re married to my great-grandson.” Berenguela frowns. “You don’t treat him as respectfully as you should.”
“Edward?” Isabella snorts. “You expect me to respect a man who stole my dower lands? Who evicted most of my household? Who prefers the company of Hugh Despenser to mine?”
“He’s your husband. Where he leads, you should follow.” Berenguela looks down her nose at Isabella.
“Oh, as you did, you mean?”
“An entirely different matter! The pope annulled our marriage, and…”
“Right, stop it,” I interrupt. I gesture towards the table. “I was thinking we would have tea and cake while discussing the situation of women in your times and mine.”
“Tea?” Isabella asks, sniffing suspiciously at her cup.
“Cake?” Kristina sounds hopeful.
“The situation of women?” Berenguela sits down and shakes her head at the offered cake. “Has it changed, do you think?”
I almost choke on my tea. “I sure hope so. Woman is no longer subservient to man.”
“Hmm.” Berenguela shares a look with the other two. “I was never subservient to a man. I was a ruler in my own right.”
“As was I.” Kristina reaches for some more cake. “Raised to be a king, not some insipid female.”
“Who says females are insipid?” Isabella says. “Just because I was queen consort, doesn’t mean I didn’t wield power.”
“Oh, you did?” Berenguela murmurs, eyes on her cup. “I thought it was Edward and Hugh who did the wielding. In difference to me and Kristina here.”
“Well, at least my children aren’t illegitimate,” Isabella snaps.
Berenguela bristles. “They’ve been legitimized! Besides, who cares? My son is a saint!”
“So say all mothers,” Isabella snorted.
“Umm, in this case she’s telling the truth,” Kristina breaks in. “San Fernando is quite the impressive man.” She pats Isabella’s arm. “As is your son—well, he will be, once he’s grown up.” She shudders. “Though how on earth either of you could go through with all that giving birth stuff is beyond me.”
“No choice,” Berenguela says. “As you make your bed, you must lie in it.”
“Not anymore,” Kristina says. “In the here and now, women have the means to make the bed without the lie-in. I’m right, aren’t I?” she demands, turning my way.
“Yup.”
“And women can even have children without ever having had a man in their bed,” Kristina continues. “Sounds perfect to me – makes man redundant.”

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Edward II – hot stuff as per Isabella

“What, all work no play?” Isabella grimaces. “I like bedding with my husband. Well, I did until he stopped bedding with me. If only that dratted Hugh…”
“Maybe Eduardo thinks you’ve lost your looks,” Berenguela says, and Isabella grips her teaspoon as if considering just how to murder this Spanish Doña with it.
“If she’s lost her looks, I’ve never had any,” Kristina puts in. She shrugs. “Not that I care. I’ve never wanted to marry anyway.”
“Wanted?” Berenguela says. “I was never given a choice in the matter.”
“Neither was I, “Isabella puts in, and they share a look over the table. “That’s the lot of a princess, to marry as it suits her father and her country.”
“Amen to that,” Berenguela puts in, crossing herself hastily.
“Fortunately, by the time I was of marriageable age, my father was long dead, so I was spared the experience,” Kristina says, but she looks a bit sad, and I wonder if maybe she’s thinking of the love of her life, Cardinal Azzolini. (And yes, that was complicated)
“These days, no one forces a woman to marry,” I put in.
Berenguela raises her brows. “What about doing her duty to her family?”
“We don’t believe in stuff like that,” I reply. “Individuals first, you know.”
“How terrible,” Berenguela says. “Family is everything! Everything!”
Oui!” Isabella chimes in. “And the best family is the Capet family.”
“Silly goose,” Berenguela says. “You have my blood in your veins, much better than that diluted Capet stuff. We are family…”
“…I have all my sisters with me,” Kristina sings, and the three of them are out of their seats and dancing like crazy.
“I must hand it to these modern people, they do know how to write some good tunes,” Kristina gasps some minutes later, fanning herself with a book.
“And bake cake,” Isabella adds, nabbing the last piece on the plate.
“Would you prefer this time to your time?” I ask. “You know, a world of comfort, of hot baths and washing machines.”
baths medieval-bath-3-650x487“We have hot baths,” Berenguela points out.
“And who needs washing machines when there are laundry maids?” Isabella asks. Kristina and Berenguela nod in agreement. These overprivileged women have never as much as washed a sock – or darned a hole. They’ve embroidered for fun—well, not Kristina. Not her thing.
“But what about books? Education?”
“I am extremely well-educated, thank you very much,” Kristina sniffs. (She is. Horribly so)
“As am I. Private tutors, endless amounts of Latin texts…” Isabella yawns.
“Scripture. I know it in and out,” Berenguela says.
“Ah.” I nod. “So nothing tempts you in the here and now?”
“Of course, it does,” Berenguela says, “but we belong where we belong, with our families, our kin…”
“…our lovers, our ambitions,” Isabella fills in.
“…our misguided decisions and our regrets,” Kristina finishes.
“Regrets?” Berenguela asks.
“Oh yes. Being an ex-queen is substantially less fun than being the real thing.” Kristina gives a crooked smile. “But I guess we all have to live with the decisions we make—no matter in what time.”
Very true. And in my time, someone is banging at the door and asking where I have the latest ppt presentation. Time to leave this time transcending tea party and return to real life, a life sadly devoid of strong historical women.
No seas tonta,” Berenguela says. “We’re right here, with you. Now, if you explain what a ppt is, then maybe we can help.”
Er… Mind you, with these savvy ladies one never knows!

The perfection of imperfection

20170301_094357In my office, I have a mug from which I drink my tea. It’s a nice mug, handmade and in a dark, dark red – very much an Anna mug. It has an ear to hold it by, but when I drink tea, I like cradling the mug, hold its warmth in my hands. Whenever I do so, one of my fingers will automatically stray to the flaw in my mug: right at the base, there’s a point where the clay broke off or the mug was chipped between firing and glazing. About one centimetre wide, the imperfection has jagged edges. I run my finger back and forth over it – repeatedly. It is soothing, somehow.

While not all of you may have a tea mug like mine, I bet you’ve all had a loose tooth—or a cavity or a blister in your mouth, or a seed stuck between your teeth. And I bet all of you have run your tongue over whatever the defect may have been. The imperfection attracts, so to say.

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Perfection is rarely alluring. That picture-perfect home, in which the tassels line up in regimental order, the pillows are plumped just so, the tables and shelves are dustless—it comes across as stiff and cold. Life has not left its mark on the sofa cushions, there isn’t any indication of anyone ever having breathed and laughed—even danced—in this beautiful space. It doesn’t tell us anything about the owner—beyond them suffering from OCD—it is just a reflecting surface, anonymous and cold. Until we add a book turned upside down on the coffee table, a hoodie thrown in the sofa. An arrangement of tulips that is well beyond its best before date spilling pollen and faded petals on the floor. A plate with a half-eaten sandwich, the bread dry enough to crumble at the touch. Signs of life, of time passing. And life is rarely perfect, is it?

I suppose it is mostly a matter of contrast: we need the slight imperfection to appreciate the beauty that surrounds it. Or maybe it’s as simple as perfection being a bit boring. A slightly crooked nose in an otherwise picture-perfect face makes the whole more interesting, teases us with various scenarios as to why it is crooked.
A mole—essentially a defect—may instead highlight the lustre of the skin that surrounds it.
The uprooted tree that leans drunkenly against its soughing neighbour serves to underline that life is ephemeral—thereby making it more precious.
A rose in full bloom is breathtakingly beautiful – but it is already tainted by decay, a faint line of brown edging its perfection.

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Kintsugi – the art of making imperfections into perfection (Image Wikipedia)

In some cultures, the irregularities, the cracks, are appreciated. In Japan, broken porcelain bowls were often repaired in such a way as to highlight the crack, resulting in creations that are beautiful because of their defects, not despite of them. Sometimes, they fill in the cracks with gold, and what was broken and ugly is elevated to finest art. Maybe an approach we should learn something from, all of us who live in a world that is increasingly fixated on outward perfection, all the way from ourselves to our homes, our gardens, our cars.

It’s not as if anyone is perfect. No matter how hard we work at our exterior, we all have our warts, our hidden cracks. It’s what makes us human, what makes us interesting and unique. It’s what makes my tea mug mine. Its little defect is what sets it apart, makes it immediately distinguishable from other dark red tea mugs. I like that it is different – I like that I am different, that I am me, even if that is mostly due to my many imperfections than my (very) few perfections. Rephrase: it’s the sum of my imperfections that makes me perfectly me!

Below in the comments Gabriel has weighed in with a link to a beautiful poem about cracks and their consequences. The poem is by René François Armand Sully-Prudhomme (quite a mouthful), a French poet who was the first ever winner of the Nobel prize back in 1901. Anyway: I think the link may well get lost in the comments so I post it here instead and urge you to pop over to the site and read it. Very beautiful. http://www.onbeing.org/uncategorized/le-vase-brise-broken-vase/

 

 

Falling forward – a reflection on evolution

The other day, I was listening to a radio programme about the deficiency of our basic design. “Our” in this case being us humans. It seems that the biped descendant of those very ancient primates that is modern human has as yet to fully master the challenge of walking without falling over.

Research has been conducted on young healthy people and their walking mishaps (the scientists have given up on the rest of us, unstable wrecks that we are). Turns out that even these prime specimens have a tendency to fall over. More than 50% report falling over on a regular basis – mostly due to stumbling over their own feet. Note that the participants were all sober, and the falling over incidents were not restricted to midnight walks through forests. Nope. Bright daylight, even ground beneath, and still our young and healthy representatives fell. A lot.

Maybe it’s not the two legs that’s the problem. Maybe it’s our feet. Maybe we, as a species, have been burdened with feet that stick out too much. The scientists disagree. There’s nothing wrong with our feet, they say. Instead, our overall stability would have been much, much better had we continued to walk on all four, dragging our knuckles along the ground. Not exactly a surprising conclusion.

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Moonlight Sonata, R.A Blakelock

Thing is, had we not dared to let go of the ground and rise on our (then) hind legs, we might have been less prone to falling, but we would also have been much, much dumber than we are today. Once primitive man lifted his eyes off the ground to view the world at large, to stare at the moon and stars above, something began happening in his brain, further stimulated by the fact that now that he wasn’t walking on his hands, he could use them for other things. Like making rudimentary tools. Or picking fruits and berries. (Or lice. Plenty of lice to pick off our ancient ancestors’ hairy frames)

Obviously, Homo Erectus was not aware of the “small step for man, huge leap for mankind” he represented. Here was a hirsute creature, standing on his two feet and regarding his surroundings from a sufficient height to discover threats before they discovered him – a good thing, seeing as our ancient forebears had little with which to defend themselves against, f.ex, a hungry leopard. I’m guessing this is where the tool development took off. Hungry leopard drops down on biped. Biped falls to the ground. Long fingers find purchase round a rock. Biped frantically hits hungry leopard over the head with rock. Leopard very surprised, lets go. Biped lives to see another day. Phew.

From rock to bash leopard with, progress was probably quick, all the way to that day when a very thin, very sharp sliver of flint was used to do some basic hair removal. “Oooo! Look at my legs,” cooed Mrs Homo Erectus, “all smooth and unhairy.” (I’m not sure we should be grateful to her, BTW) Somewhat more seriously, making tools had a huge impact on our intellectual capacity. It requires intelligence to fashion a lump of rock into something – specifically, it requires a vision, the capacity to see what it will be once it is done.

Our tool-making forefather had thereby moved into the realm of conceptual thinking. Once you can look at an unshaped lump of rock and think “hmm, that would make a great hand-axe. All I need is to chip a bit here, and there, and then…” the step towards considering the future, where we might come from and where we might end up, is not that big. Yes, Homo Erectus may have been a bit unsteady on the ground, but his brain was expanding at an impressive speed.

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Moonlight on the Fens by G Coulson

So when next you stumble over your own two feet (and no, it’s not the feet’s fault: that has been scientifically proven) remember that this is the very, very small price you pay for being able to crane your head back to look at the night sky and wonder about life on Mars. Or listen to a Beethoven symphony. Or lose ourselves in art by men like Blakelock and Coulson. Mind you, Homo Erectus would probably not have appreciated the art. Or the music. And he had never heard of Mars. But he was thrilled to bits at having survived that leopard attack!

Love unto death and beyond

Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here’s to my love!
(Drinks.)
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die

And so Romeo brushed his lips against Juliet’s and died, preferring death to living without her. A very sad end, Mr Shakespeare, one that would not have gone down well with publishers of Romance, as such publishers (and such readers) much prefer a Happily Ever After, an alternative ending in which Romeo sits up and says “Nah, I was just kidding”, except, of course, that it wouldn’t have worked. Plus, the love story with the tragic ending is much more enduring than the one with the pink fluffy clouds.

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Don Afonso

Such love stories have been around since man first began telling stories – and sometimes, the story wasn’t a story, but rather a real-life drama. Like the tale I’m going to tell you today. I might as well warn you right from the beginning that there is no HEA. Nope. Not my fault, mind you. Instead, you should blame King Afonso IV of Portugal, except that he would tell you he did as he had to do to safeguard his realm. Or so he thought.

But let us start at the beginning, and to do so I think we must start in 1320, when the not-as-yet-king Don Afonso and his wife, Beatriz, welcomed a third son into the world. In difference to his brothers, little Pedro thrived, and Don Afonso could relax. He had an heir—at last.

Don Afonso did not only have sons—he had daughters as well, and the eldest, Maria, was married to Alfonso XI of Castile. An unhappy marriage, especially once Alfonso had clapped eyes on Leonor de Guzmán, thereby more or less abandoning his wife and their little son to spend all his time with Leonor and their children. Obviously, Don Afonso was very upset by all this, and he must have had days when he deeply regretted having given his daughter in marriage to such a cad. (I’m not so sure Alfonso XI was a cad: I think he just fell in love. More about all this and Leonor’s inevitable fate can be found here)

Even worse from Don Afonos’s perspective, Maria’s bridegroom had been married elsewhere when Don Afonso convinced Alfonso XI to wed Maria instead. This was sorted by Alfonso dissolving his first marriage. The jilted (and very young) bride, Constanza Manuel, had a VERY aggravated father, and so for years Don Afonso had been embroiled in a feud with Juan Manuel, Constanza’s father. However, as the years passed, Don Afonso and Juan Manuel found a common enemy in Alfonso XI: Afonso because of how his Maria was being treated, Juan Manuel because of how his Constanza had been treated.

The two fathers struck an alliance, and what better way to celebrate such an event than have Don Afonso’s son, Pedro, wed Constanza? Everyone—including the prospective groom—felt this was a good thing. Well, until Constanza and her entourage arrived in Portugal, that is. Because you see, among Constanza’s ladies was a certain Inés de Castro, and Pedro took one look and was lost, falling irrevocably in love with this beautiful Galician lady.

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Pedro and Inés

The marriage went ahead as planned. There must have been some affinity between the newly-weds, and soon enough Constanza was pregnant. But the woman Pedro spent his time with was Inés. It was with Inés he shared his dreams, it was in Inés’ ear he whispered sweet nothings, and poor Constanza was neglected and unhappy, albeit that she gave birth to three babies before she died in 1345, just six years after her marriage.

Don Afonso was anything but delighted with his son’s infatuation. First of all, he detested that his own son was treating his wife as shabbily as dear daughter Maria was being treated by her husband. Secondly, with Inés came her brothers, and Afonso didn’t like it, how Pedro fell under the influence of these Castilians. Thirdly, upon Constanza’s death, he worried that the little legitimate heir, Fernando, was puny and weak. What if Inés was to give Pedro a son, would Pedro prefer his lover’s son to his first-born?

The obvious solution to all this worrying would have been for Don Afonso to acquiesce when Pedro asked for his permission to marry Inés once Constanza was dead. But Don Afonso said no – he didn’t want to aggravate Constanza’s father, he felt Inés was well below Pedro, and he most definitely disliked the de Castro brothers. Instead, he proposed that his son find himself a new, royal bride. Not about to happen, Pedro told him. It was Inés or no one.

In response, Don Afonso supposedly had Inés sequestered in a convent. That didn’t stop Pedro, who spent his days roaming the lands abutting the convent and sending his beloved letters in bark boats that he floated across a river that separated convent land from the rest of the world. Inés managed to escape the convent (or more likely, the nuns just let her go, not quite relishing their role of jailors to the mistress of the future king) and Inés and Pedro set up house together. In secret, of course.

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Pedro

Inés was not welcome at court, and accordingly Pedro was not much at court either, the rift between him and his father widening into a chasm. Even worse from Don Afonso’s point of view, Inés presented Pedro with several healthy children, among which were two little sons. Something had to be done to safeguard Portugal from potential civil war (or so Afonso thought, assuming Pedro would prefer his sons by Inés to his son by Constanza. Turned out Pedro didn’t) Desperate measures were required to put a stop to Inés’ influence over Pedro.

There are two versions as to what to happened that January of 1355 – or rather where it happened. As per the romantic legend, the desperate king and his three accomplices waited until Pedro was out hunting before descending on Inés who sitting by the fountain in her patio. As per other versions, Inés was detained in a convent, and the king and his companions visited her there.

Whatever the case, these visitors did not come bearing gifts. No, they came with steel hidden under their mantels, and their intention was to kill the Castilian whore and thereby free Pedro from whatever emotional bonds he had forged with Inés.

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Inés pleading for her life (Karl Bruillon)

Inés was with her children when the king burst upon them. She prostrated herself before Don Afonso and begged for her life, for the life of their children. Apparently, the king was sufficiently touched to depart, leaving his trusted men to do the dirty job themselves. There was no mercy for Inés. Instead, she was brutally killed in front of her children, the final blow decapitating her.

If Don Afonso had thought this foul act would have Pedro crawling back home, he had seriously misjudged his son (duh!) Pedro was enraged, his grief taking on teeth and claws that he turned upon his father. At the head of a growing band of armed men, he harried Portugal from one end to the other, and the civil war Don Afonso had so wanted to avoid became a reality as a consequence of his own machinations.

In 1357, father and son were reconciled – well, sort of. Pedro never forgave his father for his heinous deed, but a truce was reached. Some months later, Don Afonso died, making Pedro king of Portugal.

His first act was to arrest the men who had killed his beloved Inés (two of them, the third managed to escape) and had them put to death most horrendously. Legend has it that Pedro himself tore their beating hearts out of their chests, saying it was only fair that they should feel what it was like to lose their hearts, seeing as they’d robbed Pedro of his heart by killing Inés. Whether this is true or not is difficult to ascertain at a distance of seven centuries. What is undisputed is that Pedro had the two murderers executed.

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A dead Inés on her throne.

Pedro also announced that he had married Inés in secret before she died – contrary to his father’s wishes. There is no surviving proof of such a wedding, not entirely unsurprising seeing as it was a secret wedding, and to this day we only have Pedro’s word for it ever taking place. Don Afonso wasn’t around to object, and so Pedro proclaimed his wife posthumous queen of Portugal. As per the more lurid version of the Inés-Pedro story, Pedro decided to subject his nobles to one final humiliation: he had his beloved Inés disinterred and sat her remains upon a throne after which his nobles had to do homage to the corpse and kiss its hand. Hmm.

Whether the above somewhat macabre anecdote is true or not, Pedro did disinter Inés and had her reburied in state in the Alcobaca monastery. Their tombs stand close together, their effigies facing each other. And as a final gesture to his beloved woman, Pedro had both tombs inscribed with the following: Até o fin do mundo –Until the end of the world.

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Inés spectacular tomb

Let us start as we began, by quoting the words of the Bard, albeit somewhat paraphrased: For never was there a story of more woe, than this of Inés and her Pedro. And in difference to Romeo and Juliet, Inés and Pedro were real persons, people who lived and loved and hoped and dreamed – until that long gone day in January of 1355 when Inés was brutally hacked to death in front of her children. Sad, isn’t it? Which is why I hope that now and then when the church in which they lie is draped in darkness, they whisper to each other.
“Are you there?” he asks.
“Always,” she whispers back.
“Until the end of time,” they say simultaneously, and for an instant the air around their tombs shimmers with golden light.

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